Most women juggle busy schedules filled with demanding careers, motherhood and managing a household, often leaving their own health issues on the back burner. Amid these hectic lifestyles, doctors say the lesser-known symptoms of a heart attack can go untreated. “We commonly have women come to the emergency room who are stunned to learn they are having a heart attack,” says Dr. Linda Stronach, an interventional cardiologist at Missouri Baptist Medical Center (MoBap).
As medical director of MoBap’s Advanced Cardiac Care Unit, Stronach advises women to slow down and seek treatment. “It’s important for women to recognize that they are at risk, and recognize what can be done to modify that risk.” In fact, heart disease continues to be the No. 1 killer of women—and the condition is more deadly for women than men. Stronach, who also sees patients, notes that only 8 percent of women consider cardiovascular disease their greatest health risk, but one in three will die from it; whereas one in every 33 women will succumb to breast cancer.
Symptoms of a heart attack for women can vary, leading many to ignore the signs or attribute them to non-critical conditions. Statistics show that only 40 percent of women who were having a heart attack actually thought they were, because they didn’t experience chest pain. A common sign many men and women will experience is chest discomfort radiating to the neck or arms. However, international studies have found women also are 50 percent more likely than men to have shortness of breath, twice as likely to experience nausea, and more than twice as likely to feel a sensation of uneasiness or fear of death as a symptom, Stronach explains. They also may have discomfort in the throat or jaw, upper abdominal pain, dizziness and pain between the shoulder blades. And MoBap’s ER data findings align with these international studies, Stronach notes. “Women also are more likely to have a constellation of symptoms, rather than just one or two as many men do,” she adds.
Since women’s symptoms of a heart attack are less typical, it takes them longer to get to the emergency room, Stronach continues. Statistics show that men experiencing a heart attack arrive at a hospital within 1.3 hours, whereas women get to the ER in 1.9 hours. And that delay in recognizing serious symptoms can be life-threatening, Stronach warns. “The faster we can take care of patients, the better their outcomes.”
Risk factors of coronary heart disease include family history, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, being 30 pounds or more overweight and an inactive lifestyle. And some of these risk factors impact women more than men, Stronach notes. “A woman doubles her risk of a heart attack by smoking, but it increases men’s risk by 30 percent.” Additionally, women who have hypertension and diabetes are at higher risk of having a heart attack than men with the same conditions. To mitigate these risks, Stronach recommends not smoking and working with your health care provider to ensure other risk factors are under good control.
When women experience a heart attack, MoBap’s cardiac cath team is at the ready to take patients to the cath lab to assess the cause of the episode, then address it by opening up a blocked vessel, and even putting in a stent if warranted. Stronach encourages women who are experiencing heart attack symptoms to call 911 for an EMT response, rather than driving themselves to the hospital. She also recommends taking an aspirin while waiting for medical personnel to arrive. EMTs can complete an EKG in the patient’s home or en route to the hospital and alert the cardiac cath team members, who are waiting for the ambulance to offer immediate assistance.
Stronach hopes to educate more women about their heart disease risks, preventive measures and treatment. And those women who arrived at the MoBap ER not realizing they were experiencing a heart attack also are helping the hospital spread the word. “They are very helpful in communicating what the lesser-known symptoms are to the community,” Stronach says.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women—and many remain unaware of the lesser-known symptoms they can experience during a heart attack. At Missouri Baptist Medical Center, cardiologists encourage women to know their heart disease risks. For more information, call 996-LIFE (5433) or visit herheartmatters.org.